A Woman’s Escape from Violence
Aya fled a desperate situation at home and like many others, she risked her life to reach safety. In an interview with UNHCR Malta, she tells us about her journey.
Aya*, from West Africa, fled her home when she feared for her life. She had to cross through two countries, Mali and Algeria, before reaching Zabrata, in Libya. She then took a desperate journey across the sea, was rescued and brought to safety in Malta.
(UNHCR) Can you tell us what made you take the difficult decision to leave your country?
(Aya) I left because of my violent husband. You know, in my country, you don’t really have a say in your future husband. I was 15 when they married me to this guy, a cousin, and I could not object. My eldest son is now 19. I was too young when I gave birth. I was also the one taking care of everyone in his extended family because I was their son’s bride. I would have to cook extremely big amounts of rice for the whole family every day, apart from all other chores.
My husband became really violent with time, especially after he started drinking way more than he did before. I was afraid for my life, because [the violence] was getting worse and worse.
What happened after you arrived in Libya?
I spent four months in a compound in Zabrata. I was not allowed to leave… Some [other women] and I started making African sweets and sell them to the smugglers because we could not leave at all. It was nothing complicated, just flour and sugar mainly. But at least it gave us something to do during those detention months… We were like chickens, not human beings. They kept us hidden there until the day we are supposed to leave.
I also spent over one month in detention in Libya. It was horrible. We were not treated like humans. We were so malnourished. They would give you a piece of bread in the morning, only that. And then you’d have to wait until 2pm to get dry spaghetti. And at night it’s usually the same spaghetti. I was detained with other people, because we were caught on our first attempt to leave [by sea]. But this is their game; we have become their “café cacao” [trade].
They take you to the seashore and then their “friend” catch you and take you to prison. Then you have to pay them money to get out of prison, but they are the same people. It’s a network.
And they keep doing this over and over to get as much money as possible from every one of us. There is no work in Libya; we, black people, have become their work. You pay at least 500 euros to leave. So you do the math…
Like many other people fleeing their homes, you embarked on a dangerous crossing of the sea. What was the journey like?
We left on a boat from a very small village in the suburbs of the Libyan capital. We used a dinghy boat… you know, those plastic inflatable boats that are not secure and might break any minute. But when you put your heart in this, you’re blinded. You don’t assess any of these risks. It’s just when you get here and you’re safe that you look back and think, “Oh, great God!”
It’s only when I walk by the sea now and stop to think that we were right in that water some time ago that I realise how crazy it was… But when you put your heart to it, there is no going back. We wanted to leave at all costs.
In our dinghy, we were 100 people… Now, of course these dinghies could never have been enough for big numbers of people, but the Libyan smugglers are extremely professional: they know what they are doing. For them, we are not human beings, we are sheep that they stuff together on the vessel. All they care about is money, nothing else. When it’s your turn to get on board, they take you like that and they throw you forcefully into the boat.
At this point, they had already had their money from you, so they do not care anymore. This is when you know you’re only in the hands of God. They would beat you; they would force you into the boat in a very brutal way. There is someone there whose job is to manage the seating arrangements on the boat so that they fit as many people as possible.
What happened when you saw the rescue boat?
When we saw the NGO rescue boat, we were very scared in the beginning because we did not know who they are. We saw it approaching and we heard someone from our boat say that these will take us to prison in Libya. So everyone started crying and panicking until a woman spoke to us in French and told us to keep calm and not to be afraid. When she spoke French, we finally understood it was not the Libyan coast guard. We were relieved. They gave us life jackets for the women first to get on board. You could see everyone crying. I cried so much until I don’t even remember what happened later.
How is your experience of living in Malta, and what are the main challenges?
In general, I like Malta because I’m already here and I am working to make a living somehow. The only problem is documents… I am a woman and I am not married here, I am on my own, and that makes a lot of things uncertain for me. If I had protection documents, however, I could have done much more things in my life and I could have felt much better about living in Malta. If you don’t have a stable status here, you cannot do much.
I had my asylum interview and I am still waiting for a decision…. But anyway, I thank God every day that I am safe.
How is your interaction with local people?
The place where I work is actually owned by Maltese people, and all my colleagues are Maltese. We do not have any problems. Some of my other colleagues are from Ghana and they speak English. It was funny in the beginning because we used hand gestures to understand each other. But it is getting better gradually. In general, however, I only leave home to go work, so I don’t usually encounter many locals. All my focus is on my work for now.
How do you feel now that you are in Malta?
Wherever I’m safe, I’m happy. And I don’t want my children to go through the same. That’s why I’m doing my best and I’m working hard to try and bring them here without depriving them of their dignity like me.
*Identifying features have been excluded for protection reasons
A version of this article also appears in Building Communities, a UNHCR Malta magazine published in January 2020.